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The Skinny on Diet Sodas — Old Warnings Don’t Apply (But There Is a Better Choice)

Gone are the days when diet soda was thought to contain cancer-causing agents (unless you are a lab rat with a serious soft drink problem). The artificial sweeteners and chemicals they contain have been found safe for most people in reasonable amounts, and some brands are even fortified with vitamins and minerals. But are they the best choice for your body?

No Quick Fix

We’ve all heard stories of someone who simply cut out sweetened soda and lost a ton of weight. But unless you are that addicted lab rat, there’s very little evidence to support that switching to diet soda alone will have much effect, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

While switching to diet soda might make a difference, even a big one, for someone trying to manage blood sugar or diabetes, no single fix is going to yield all the health improvements you might need or desire.

Another thing to consider: Drinks (or foods) that are high in added sugar are essentially empty calories — meaning they hold no nutritive value. They can also be inflammatory, which can damage healthy cells, tissue and organs.

Is It Safe?

Diet sodas are made with many different types of sweeteners — some are potentially more harmful than others depending on your individual risk factors. Drinks labeled zero sugar often are simply using a different type of artificial sweetener.

High-intensity sweeteners, most commonly called “artificial sweeteners,” can be many hundreds of times sweeter than table sugar, so much less of them is needed to achieve flavor. Only a handful are approved by the FDA and generally recognized as safe if you are drinking two or fewer artificially sweetened drinks a day.  Three of the most common artificial sweeteners in diet sodas are:

  • Saccharin. Discovered in the 1800s, saccharin is 200 to 700 times sweeter than table sugar. It shows up a lot in fruit juice mixes and processed foods. It was briefly removed from the market when 1970s-era studies linked it to bladder cancer in rats. Further studies on humans did not find that effect, and the National Institutes of Health removed it from its carcinogens list.
  • Aspartame. Very common in diet soda, it is 200 times sweeter than sugar. Among the most intensively studied substances in nutrition science, it’s thought to be a problem only for those with Phenylketonuria — or PKU, a rare amino acid disorder — who cannot metabolize it.
  • Sucralose. This is 600 times sweeter than table sugar. Approved in the late 1990s, it’s found in beverages as well as baked goods because it is heat stable.

Two plant-based high-intensity sweeteners that are sometimes found in diet drinks also are considered safe by the FDA:

  • Monk fruit extract, naturally derived from monk fruit, a small round fruit native to China.
  • Stevia, naturally derived from the leaves of the stevia plant, an herbal shrub native to South America.

Wait for It …

There’s just no getting around it: The best choice for hydration is almost always water. (You knew that was coming.) In the nutrition world, dietitians look at food on a spectrum from not-so-good — things that have no nutritional value or are harmful — to really good, things that contain nourishing nutrients. Picture sweetened soda on the not-so-good side — there’s plenty of science to show it can lead to metabolic syndrome, increasing your risk of obesity, high-blood pressure, diabetes and more. Imagine water, the liquid our bodies evolved to utilize, on the positive end. Diet soda falls somewhere in the middle. Not necessarily a bad choice, but not the best choice, neither nourishing nor hydrating.

What About Kids?

Even more than for adults, water is the best option for hydrating, especially for younger children who are still developing and have higher fluid needs for growth. If you have a child who only wants to drink soda, switching to diet could be an alternative — but eventually you will want to want to wean them toward water.

Plenty of kids — and adults for that matter — simply don’t like the taste or sensation of drinking plain water. What’s a parent to do? Infuse it. Strawberries, mint, cucumbers and lime all add flavor without adding extra sugar or chemicals. And flavored water is generally easy to make at home with things you have on hand.  Another pro tip: Sipping can be an easy way to take in more water — look for a bottle with a straw, as opposed to a twist-off lid. The more fun your container is, or more personal to you or your kid’s interests, the more it will be used; keeping it full and handy also increases consumption.

The Last Word

Diet sodas and artificial sweeteners have been studied exhaustively; the FDA has reviewed all of the studies and approved a half-dozen for use in the U.S. They don’t do that with every food additive — there are sweeteners approved in other countries that have not been OK’d here. While diet sodas aren’t the best choice for hydration — did we mention water? — for most people they are safe to consume within the acceptable daily intake established for all additives by the FDA.

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